This week the British Government has finally agreed to compensate those who suffered torture and sexual abuse when detained by the British colonial administration during the Mau Mau insurgency in 1950s Kenya. The 5000 individual survivors of the detention camps will be compensated less than £3,000 each; a modest sum, but the concession that British officials tortured, sexually abused and killed their colonial subjects, has far greater significance.
Mau Mau was an anti-colonial movement amongst the Kikuyu (the largest ethnic group in Kenya) in response to intolerable pressures on land and resources resultant from white settlement. Mau Mau’s use of ritualistic oath-taking and their responsibility for the gruesome murder of some European settlers (32 in the 7 year conflict) and many more Africans working for the British or seen to profit from British rule, generated hysteria amongst the white population of Kenya and British colonial officials. The British response included a guerrilla war against Mau Mau insurgents and the mass detention, interrogation and ‘civilisation’ of tens of thousands of Mau Mau suspects (which included large proportions of the Kikuyu population) in prison camps. Hard labour, degrading treatment, semi-starvation and corporal punishment were used systematically. Methods used to extract information in the British camps included torture, rape and mutilation. Although tens of thousands of people, mainly Mau Mau suspects (and it should be noted the word ‘suspects’ was often arbitrarily applied), were killed by the British or detained in the camps, for a long time the suppression of Mau Mau has been little known about and shrouded in silence. When Kenya was granted independence, in 1963, the British destroyed large swaths of records of the period, particularly of what went on in the prison camps. When Mau Mau suppression was discussed in Britain it was misleadingly discussed as an effort to ‘civilise’ an ‘atavistic’ people. Although the survivors of the detention camps will receive a relatively small sum, this recognition of the abuse of colonial subjects is an important and symbolic act.
For a long time Britain has been reluctant to concede that the British Empire was violent. It is sometimes taken for granted that violence was an integral element of nineteenth-century European imperialism is, but British imperialism has often been seen as exceptional, and the British Empire portrayed as relatively benign, even as a ‘pax Britannica’. This popular memory is highly distorted. As historians have increasingly demonstrated, violence, or the threat of violence, always underlined British colonial rule. In establishing ‘pax Britannica’, Britain engaged in a series of wars in southern Africa, Nigeria, India, Burma, New Zealand, Sudan and elsewhere, euphemistically minimising them to ‘little’ wars in colonial rhetoric. After conquest, the maintenance of colonial ‘authority’ rested on the further deployment or potential deployment of more violence, economically, through legal or military systems, or by individuals, the violence that Frantz Fanon famously argued ‘ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms’ (Fanon, 1961). Resistance to colonisation was often itself violent, and was invariably followed by violent suppression.
There are many reasons why the forgetting of colonial violence has been so enduring. At its most striking is the overt manipulation of documentary evidence. One of the intriguing things about the Mau Mau trial has been the way in which it has revealed deliberate attempts to sanitise the historical record. Historians Caroline Elkins, David Anderson and others, called to the court as expert witnesses, argued that the disclosure of relevant records was incomplete, forcing the government to admit to the existence of an enormous secret archive of more than 8,000 files from 37 former colonies. The records are at points meticulous (including their recording of the ‘roasting alive’ of one Mau Mau suspect). But beyond this deliberate disclosure is a far more insidious process of the ‘forgetting’ of colonial violence, or what historians have discussed as the ‘historical amnesia’ of the British Empire itself. Violence in the British Empire has long been screened by benign images of colonial progress in British territories, and displaced onto horrific images of violence in other empires, the Belgian or Portuguese, for example. Where colonial violence is discussed, it was as something confined to narrow historical periods, or events (slavery, the Indian Rebellion or the South African War, for example); exploring violence through these anomalous incidents was a powerful strategy of containment.
Part of the compensation settlement to the victims of colonial torture in Kenya has involved the British government agreeing to fund the construction of a memorial in Nairobi to Kenya’s victims of colonial era torture. This perhaps one small step in making this past visible. But, of course, there are no plans to erect such a monument in Britain itself. If the numerous comments on the various news websites following the announcement of compensation are anything to go by, the response to these moves in Britain is for the most part very hostile. Remembering this past continues to be difficult, and incorporating the memory of torture into Britain’s national history is a long way off.
Esme Cleall is Lecturer in the History of the British Empire at the University of Sheffield. If you’d like to read more of Esme’s work you can see her article on ‘”In Defiance of the Highest Principles of Justice, Principles of Righteousness”: The Indenturing of the Bechuana Rebels and the Ideals of Empire, 1897–1900′, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40.4 (2012) [log-in needed].
Image: Statue of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi in Nairobi, Kenya [Wikicommons]